Billings Lawmaker Proposes Drone Licensing

MDT would administer drone licenses, collect data

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — A Billings Republican introduced Friday the latest in a line of bills to regulate drones in the state of Montana.

Rep. Jeff Essmann proposed that the state license and regulate drones in order to keep unmanned aerial vehicle systems from invading people’s privacy.

House Bill 593 would direct the Montana Department of Transportation to administer drone licenses and collect data on drone usage. The proposal would also ban the use of drones to photograph or record a person, private home or the agricultural industry without written consent.

Essmann said he met a woman last year who, three weeks earlier, had found a downed drone in her backyard an hour after dark.

“She said ‘We just couldn’t figure out what that thing was doing flying around at 8:30 at night,'” Essmann said the woman told him. “‘Until I remembered that two blonde teenage girls live next door.'”

For that reason, the sponsor said he drafted HB 593 to curb current and future peeping Tom drones.

Republican Rep. Kirk Wagoner said the measure seems unnecessary given the update to surreptitious viewing laws that the legislature passed and Gov. Steve Bullock signed last month. The law was updated to prohibit peeping Toms using remote recording devices.

Essmann said his bill is still relevant considering the education that goes hand-in-hand with his proposed drone license tests and the need to keep drones from flying at night, whether or not they’re recording.

Curtis Suter and Travis Elbert opposed the measure on behalf of model airplane groups in Helena, Billings and Missoula, saying it would inhibit recreational flyers.

Suter opposed the bill as a full-scale airplane pilot and flight instructor who has been flying model aircraft for about 40 years. He said the proposal does not adequately distinguish drones from model aircraft with no surreptitious intentions, and he wasn’t sure if it would be possible to do so.

“With the advent of the so-called drones, nothing has really changed other than the number of models being flown,” Suter said. He later added, that “models have had the capability of dropping a six-pack of beer over a prison wall for many, many decades.”

The federal government is expected to release rules for commercial vehicles this year and leaving some drone regulation to the states. Essmann’s proposal would not apply to commercial or governmental aircraft.

Earlier this session, Essmann introduced a bill to prohibit drones from harassing hunters and fishers. That bill was tabled in a House committee. On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Willis Curdy proposed House Bill 586 to keep drones away from airports, crop dusting and emergency responders.

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